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The term "meme" (IPA: [miːm]), coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, refers to a replicator of cultural information that one mind transmits (verbally or by demonstration) to another mind. Dawkins said, Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Other examples include deities, concepts, ideas, theories, opinions, beliefs, practices, habits, dances and moods which propagate within a culture. A meme propagates itself as a unit of cultural evolution analogous in many ways to the gene (the unit of genetic information). Often memes propagate as more-or-less integrated cooperative sets or groups, referred to as memeplexes or meme-complexes.

Some proponents of memes suggest that memes have, as a fundamental property, evolution via natural selection — in a way very similar to Charles Darwin's ideas concerning biological evolution — on the premise that replication, mutation, survival and competition influence them. For example, while one idea may become extinct, other ideas will survive, spread and mutate — for better or for worse — through modification.

Some meme-theorists contend that memes most beneficial to their hosts will not necessarily survive; rather, those memes which replicate the most effectively spread best; which allows for the possibility that successful memes might prove detrimental to their hosts.

Origins and concepts

Richard Dawkins coined the term meme, which first came into popular use with the publication of his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins based the word on a shortening of the Greek "mimeme" (something imitated), making it sound similar to "gene". The concept received relatively little attention until the late 1980s when several academics took it up, most prominently American philosopher and Cognitive Scientist, Daniel Dennett, who promoted the idea firstly in his book on the philosophy of mind, Consciousness Explained (1991), and then in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995). Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity (such as a song, an idea or a religion) that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesised that people could view many cultural entities as replicators, generally replicating through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient (though not perfect) copiers of information and behaviour. Memes do not always get copied perfectly, and might indeed become refined, combined or otherwise modified with other ideas, resulting in new memes. These memes may themselves prove more (or less) efficient replicators than their predecessors, thus providing a framework for a theory of cultural evolution, analogous to the theory of biological evolution based on genes.

Considerable controversy surrounds the term "meme" and its associated discipline, memetics. In part this arises because a number of possible (though not mutually exclusive) interpretations of the nature of the concept have arisen:

  1. The least controversial claim suggests that memes provide a useful philosophical perspective with which to examine cultural evolution. Proponents of this view argue that considering cultural developments from a meme's eye view — as if memes acted to maximise their own replication and survival — can lead to useful insights and yield valuable predictions into how culture develops over time. Dawkins himself seems to have favoured this approach.
  2. Other theorists, such as Francis Heylighen, have focused on the need to provide an empirical grounding for memetics in order for people to regard it as a real and useful scientific discipline. Given the nebulous (and in many cases subjective) nature of many memes, providing such an empirical grounding has to date proved challenging.
  3. A third approach, exemplified by Dennett and by Susan Blackmore in her book The Meme Machine (1999), seeks to place memes at the centre of a radical and counter-intuitive naturalistic theory of mind and of personal identity.


Historically, the notion of a unit of social evolution, and a similar term (from Greek mneme, "memory"), first appeared in 1904 in a work by the German evolutionary biologist Richard Semon titled Die Mnemische Empfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Originalenempfindungen (loosely translated as “Memory-feelings in relation to original feelings”). According to the OED, the word mneme appears in English in 1921 in L. Simon's translation of Semon's book: The Mneme.

Dawkins' genetic analogy

Richard Dawkins, the British zoologist, introduced the term after writing that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplifies another self-replicating unit, and most importantly, one which he thought would prove useful in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.

This analogy suggests that the definition of a meme should refer to the physical structure, or abstract code representing that structure, representing a real idea as observed in situ. Genes do not depend upon their transfer for their current existence; they only need to have a definite and unique physical structure. One might appropriately extend the analogy to the concept of a meme.

Dawkins (2006) himself, in a speech on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Selfish Gene described his motivation for postulating memes: he portrayed the idea not so much as an attempt at creating an account for cultural complexity, but rather as seeking something with which the selfish-genetic mechanism would still work with unreliable replicators:

Next question might be, does the information have to be molecular at all? Memes. This is not something that I’ve ever wanted to push as a theory of human culture, but I originally proposed it as a kind of… almost an anti-gene, to make the point that Darwinism requires accurate replicators with phenotypic power, but they don’t necessarily have to be genes. What if they were computer viruses? They hadn’t been invented when I wrote The Selfish Gene so I went straight for memes, units of cultural inheritance.

Memes as discrete units

Though Dawkins defined the meme as "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation", memeticists vary in their definitions of meme. The lack of a consistent, rigorous and precise definition of a meme remains a problem in debates about memetics.

Although memeticists speak of memes as discrete units, this need not imply that thoughts somehow become quantized or that "atomic" ideas exist which one cannot break down into smaller pieces. The meme as a unit simply provides a convenient way of discussing "a piece of thought copied from person to person", regardless of whether that thought contains others inside it, or forms part of a larger meme. A meme could consist of a single newly-coined word, or a meme could consist of the entire speech in which that word was first uttered. The "word itself" meme will most likely survive many more generations (after transmission alone or in other sentences) than the "speech in its entirety" meme will survive (due to errors of memory, abridged versions, etc.)

This forms an analogy to the idea of a gene as a self-replicating set of code. The gene in this definition does not consist of a set number of nucleotides, but simply a collection of nucleotides (possibly in many different locations on the DNA) that replicate together and code for some set of behaviors or body parts.

In 1981 biologists Charles J. Lumsden and Edward Osborne Wilson published a theory of gene/culture co-evolution in the book Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process. They pointed out that the fundamental biological units of culture must correspond to neuronal networks that function as nodes of semantic memory. Wilson later adopted the term 'meme' as the best existing name for the fundamental unit of cultural inheritance and elaborated upon the fundamental role of memes in unifying the natural and social sciences in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.


Much of the study of memes focusses on groups of memes called "memeplexes", "meme complexes" or "memecomplexes" — such as religious, cultural, or political doctrines and systems. Memeplexes of religion provide a common example. In the case of Christianity (the theory suggests), the Christian memeplex evolved to form (among others) the Catholic church. Following the schism between the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches, and later splits giving rise to various Protestant churches, various people have added and deleted individual memes, resulting in the formation of completely different memeplexes (religions/sects) within the basic umbrella of Christianity, as well as within (for example) the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions.


Life-forms transmit information vertically (from generation to generation) via replication of genes. Memes can also transmit information vertically by replication. Some life-forms can spread from their host horizontally, within groups of contemporaries. Memes also spread from hosts in such a manner. They may also lie dormant for long periods of time, as for example, when Copernicus rediscovered the ancient heliocentric views of Aristarchus. One can view memeplexes as assisting the survival and transmission of memes in a symbiotic relationship.


Main article: Memetics

Memetics, the study of memes, remains a controversial field among many scientists and skeptics. Memetics originated when Richard Dawkins reduced the process of biological genetic evolution to its most fundamental unit: the replicator (or gene). Dawkins, in a search for parallels and other things that he might classify as replicators, suggested that the information and ideas in brainsculture, for example — could function as replicators as well. Computer software may represent another form of replicator with which evolution may eventually build grand things, whether socially as in the open source movement, or through the use of evolutionary algorithms.

Memetics offers maximum explanatory value in cases where one cannot demonstrate the truth of the contents of the meme. For example, one can readily show that washing hands helps to prevent illness, so the best explanation for the widespread popularity of this practice is that "it works," though memetics still helps explain the rate of spread, and details such as why the practice of washing hands before surgery took so long to catch on. Memetics though excels in explaining the spread of certain value judgements ("chastity is important"), preferences ("pork is repulsive"), superstitions ("black cats bring bad luck") and other scientifically unverifiable beliefs ("'X' is the one true God"), since one cannot easily account for any of these phenomena in terms of their truth-value. Calling someone's ideas/beliefs/action a "meme", therefore, does not constitute an insult, but saying that it is "just a meme" does.

Memetic methodology

Memetics often takes concepts from the theory of evolution (especially population genetics) and applies them to human culture. Memetics also uses mathematical models to try to explain many very controversial subjects such as religion and political systems. Principal criticisms of memetics include the claim that memetics ignores established advances in the fields (such as sociology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, etc.) most relevant to the claims and methodologies of memetics.

Memeticists generate much memetic terminology by prepending 'mem(e)-' to an existing, usually biological, term or by putting 'mem(e)' in place of 'gen(e)' in various terms. Examples include: meme pool, memotype, memetic engineer, meme-complex.

Some concepts of memetics

The term memetic association refers to the idea that memes herd. For example, a meme for blue jeans includes memes for trouser-flies, riveted clothing, blue dye, cotton clothing, belt-loops and double-sewn seams. In this way, groups of memes can operate symbiotically (to use a biological analogy) in the sense that they act for their mutual benefit/survival.

The phrase memetic drift (formed by analogy to genetic drift) refers to the process of a meme changing as it replicates between one person to another. Memetic drift increases when meme transmission occurs in an awkward way. Very few memes show strong memetic inertia (the characteristic of a meme to manifest in the same way and to have the same impact regardless of who receives or transmits the meme). Memetic inertia increases when the meme transfers along with mnemonic devices, such as a rhyme, to preserve the memory of the meme prior to its transmission. See Telephone (game) for one example of memetic drift.

Doubts about memetics

In much the same way that the selfish gene concept offers a fruitful way of understanding and reasoning about aspects of biological evolution, the meme concept allegedly can conceivably assist in the better understanding of some otherwise puzzling aspects of human culture (and learned behaviors of other animals as well). However, if one cannot test for "better" empirically, the question will remain whether or not the meme concept counts as a valid scientific theory. Memetics thus remains a science in its infancy, a protoscience (to proponents) or a pseudoscience (to detractors).

Memetic accounts of religion

By definition, religion itself constitutes a meme, and Dawkins has often discussed religion. Some fundamentalist evangelical religious movements act predominantly to swell the reach of their faith. These movements devote a large amount of time to evangelical activity. But for such a meme to continue to propagate, it must also provide some psychological benefit to members: catharsis, a release from worry and guilt, a sense of salvation, happiness, moral energy, or a way out of the fear of death.

Many of the world's most successful religions (and arguably all religions) have become subject to conscious memetic modification over time. Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism and Islam (and their descendants) all arose (presumably) through variation, modification and memetic recombination from a common one or few ancestors, probably monotheistic. Zoroastrianism appears to have functioned as an important and widely-shared memetic ancestor, contributing to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their many derivative religions. Those ancestors presumably resulted from extensive memetic engineering themselves, possibly more impressive than the modification of their descendants (as early religious meme-systems had less developed raw-material to work with).

The Religious Right in the United States of America has, in cases, a unified message built around religious dogma. By attaching conservative political views to Christian religious evangelism ("meme piggybacking"), they have associated a particular set of political ideas/memeplexes with a separate set of religious ideas/memeplexes that have "replicated" very effectively for many centuries. Christianity has won converts for centuries; now in many cases a religious conversion also becomes a political conversion. Compare cultural hegemony and cuius regio, eius religio.

Much early persecution of Christianity resulted from its adherents' refusal to adopt an enforced political ritual/view (Emperor-worship). Synergy between value-systems does not necessarily equal values expressed in the political arena. Note, contrariwise, that some perennial political issues have existed far longer than any single culture's religious system. Politico-religious memeplexes form and re-form, evolve and decay.

Some spiritual practices (such as Buddhism) promote ecological and moral goals recognizable to most people. For example, the Noble Eightfold Path emphasizes limited consumption, reduced cruelty, no delegation of violence or participation in violent systems, and a withdrawal from sexual and ethical processes that have no clear ecological or moral value to the practitioner — regardless of the value they may have to others. Note here too the memes of the list and of the set of commandments.

The Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions focus more on devotion to a transcendent deity and to moral codes of behavior, including social and ethical codes affecting every aspect of life from public behavior to commerce to sexual expression. Such religions strongly encourage people to devote themselves to the needs of others. On the other hand, Christianity and Islam also strongly encourage conversions and active proselytising. Since the origins of both Islam and Christianity had roots in ancient Judaism, and since Judaism has remained a less popular belief system, this could be seen as a good example for a successful memetic mutation for self-propagation.

A tendency exists in memetics to disparage religious memes. However, some speculate that traditional religions act as mental immune systems to suppress new (and potentially harmful) memes. Some compare this process to a scenario where the action of a virus (here a religion or a "bundle" of religious memes) proves ineffective and maladaptive if it kills its host(s), or to where the presence of less-harmful bacteria on the skin prevent infection by more-harmful organisms. For example, popular Christianity forbids both murder and suicide (an idea from Augustine of Hippo's The City of God), and its precise definitions of heresy ensure that properly-educated Christians have difficulty in accepting new religions or new viewpoints which advocate such actions.

One could make a case (as Susan Blackmore has done) that the study of Zen meditation in itself comprises a process of meme "pruning", i.e., a means to remove experiential clichés that reduce the value of life. This has not exempted Zen itself from serving as a source of highly mobile memes, such as "the sound of one hand clapping" koan or exclaiming "mu".

Daniel Dennett used the idea of religion as a meme (or as a set of memes) as a basis for much of his analysis of religion in his book Breaking the Spell.

Memetic accounts of science

The scientific method offers a body of social and experimental techniques which, given certain preconditions — a free press for the circulation of information, a large number of people predisposed to see the world as a mechanism subject to general regularities which humans can observe, describe and model through repeatable experiments and/or observations — acts highly virulently, spreading quickly through an educated population. By demonstrating its success at making predictions, science as a practice can make itself more attractive to potential converts. Whether or not experimenters can necessarily verify them, ideas and attitudes — those which scientists tend to hold or those which "feel" aesthetically pleasing in combination with scientific discoveries — can propagate themselves in societies where science has a high status by the process of "meme piggybacking".

Furthermore, one can view the scientific method as a successful means of selecting those memeplexes best suited for explaining observable physical processes, through its mechanism (parallel to the evolutionary algorithm used in computer science) of providing standardized methods for creating and evaluating competing populations of solutions to a given problem.

Memetic explanations of racism

Memes in themselves appear morally neutral; not necessarily good or bad. However the application of memes can have moral implications, such as controlling the thinking of people in significant ways. History furnishes many examples, such as the genocide that took place between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Racism provides an example of a common meme: an ideology that has come to separate people, killing those who are the target of racism and threatening the lives of those who do not believe in it. Once introduced into a culture, memes evolve (antisemitism versus xenophobia) and spread through society, sometimes becoming both harmful and attractive so that they spread like a virus.(Ref.: 1994 G. Burchett)

Memetic engineering

Main article: Memetic engineering

Memetic engineering consists of the process of developing memes, through meme-splicing and memetic synthesis, with the intent of altering the behavior of others. It consists of the process of creating and developing theories or ideologies based on an analytical study of societies, their ways of thinking and the evolution of the minds that comprise them. Attempts have been made at Artificial Meme-Phrase Creation, although success has been limited.

Sometimes people modify and fabricate memes consciously, even intentionally (though some argue that the intention comes from the memes). This would help to explain how rapidly, extensively and usefully memetic evolution has functioned in and for culture. People apply many ever-evolving meme-based systems of analysis and error correction to all information flowing in and out. Just as genetic material has developed gene-based error-correction models, memetic systems have found it advantageous to associate with meme-based error-correction models. The entire process could appear as meme-based systemic complexes taking advantage (like a virus) of an extensive computational system (the human brain in this case), programming it to produce and modify memes, and thus to modify and expand the memotypic soup which largely dictates human thoughts and actions (and of course to build very useful - but still likely erroneous - memeplexes).

Memetic evolution

Evolution requires not only inheritance and natural selection but also mutation, and memes also exhibit this property. Ideas may undergo changes in transmission which accumulate over time. Generations of hosts pass on these changes in the "phenotype" (the information in brains or in retention systems). In other words, unlike genetic evolution, memetic evolution can show both Darwinian and Lamarckian traits. For example, folk tales and myths often become embellished in the retelling to make them more memorable or more appropriate and therefore more impressed listeners have a greater likelihood of retelling them, complete with accumulating embellishments. More modern examples appear in the various urban legends and hoaxes — such as the Goodtimes virus warning — that circulate on the Internet.

Dawkins observed that cultures can evolve in much the same way that populations of organisms evolve. Various ideas pass from one generation to the next; such ideas may either enhance or detract from the survival of the people who obtain those ideas, or influence the survival of the ideas themselves. This process affects which of those ideas will survive for passing on to future generations. For example, a certain culture may have unique designs and methods of tool-making that another culture may not have; therefore, the culture with the more effective methods may prosper more than the other culture, ceteris paribus. This leads to a higher proportion of the overall population adopting the more effective methods as time passes. Each tool-design thus acts somewhat similarly to a biological gene in that some populations have it and others do not, and the meme's function directly affects the presence of the design in future generations.

Propagation of memes

Memes have as an important characteristic their propagation through imitation, a concept introduced by the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde. Imitation involves copying the observed behaviour of another individual. Typically imitators copy behaviour from observing other humans, but they may also copy from an inanimate source, such as from a book or from a musical score. Imitation may depend on brains sufficiently powerful to assess the key aspects of the imitated behavior (what to copy and why) as well as its potential benefits

Researchers have observed memetic copying in just a few species on Earth, including hominids, dolphins and birds (which learn how to sing by imitating their parents).

When imitation first evolved in the animal ancestors of humans, it proved itself a valuable skill for learning, which increased an individual's ability to reproduce genetically. Some have speculated that sexual selection of the best imitators further drove a genetic increase in the ability of brains to imitate well.

Interestingly, memetics suggests that memes have the potential for a much more lasting effect than genes. Most organisms pass their genes on to their offspring sexually, but with every generation the genetic contribution of a given ancestor halves - so that a person only has 1/4 of their grandfather's personal genes, for example (of course, populations inherit most genes in common). Susan Blackmore has poignantly evaluated the legacy of Socrates. Since the 5th century BC Socrates' genes have become thoroughly diluted (dispersed); however, his memes still have a profound effect on modern thought and on contemporary philosophical discourse.

Evolutionary forces affecting memes

Even if one accepts the memetic description, it still remains to single out which memes have good potential for spreading. One can make an analogy with biology. To be able to say something about the spread of a gene in birds that affect their wings ornithologists need to know about both population genetics and aerodynamics. Similarly, memetecists need to complement the description of memes with a description of what makes a meme easily absorbable by people other than the original carrier.

Only the number of extant copies (and where those copies reside) determine the measurable success of a gene or of a meme. A strong (but not complete) correlation exists between genes that do well and genes that have a positive effect on the organism which contains those genes. And if we can restrict attention to memes normally interpreted as statements of fact, then a correlation emerges between those memes that do well and those that reflect reality. However, some genes and memes do survive which owe their success to other factors. Similarly, a correlation exists between successful memes of a technological/economic nature and those that help the economy (such as slavery and free markets (each in their day), for instance).

A gene's success in a body may stem from its attempt to bypass the normal sexual lottery by making itself present in more than 50% of zygotes in an organism. Some genes find other ways of having themselves transmitted between cells. Hence multiple factors influence the evolution of genes — not just the success of the species as a whole. Similarly the evolutionary pressures on memes include much more than just truth and economic success. Evolutionary pressures may include the following:

  1. Experience: If a meme does not correlate with an individual's experience, then that individual has a reduced likelihood of remembering that meme
  2. Happiness: If a meme makes people feel happier then they have a greater likelihood of remembering it
  3. Fear: If a meme constitutes a threat then people may become frightened into believing it. The memes "if you do X you will burn in hell" and "do Y and you will go to heaven" provide common examples. On the other hand, examples of memes which pass on the fear of a threat, of the likelihood or effectiveness of a threat, that "something will happen if you do such and such a thing", have a high likelihood of success, and may therefore replicate and remain in the meme pool. They may assist in this way in the survival of a thought, a theme or a philosophy within a community.
  4. Censorship: If an organisation destroys any retention-systems containing a particular meme or otherwise controls the usage of said meme, then that meme may suffer a selective disadvantage.
  5. Economics: If people or organisations with economic influence exhibit a particular meme, then the meme has a greater likelihood of benefiting from a greater audience. If a meme tends to increase the riches of an individual holding it, then that meme may spread because of imitation. Such memes might include "Hard work is good" and "Put number one first".
  6. Distinction: If the meme enables hearers to recognize and respect tellers (as leaders, intelligent people, insightful, etc.), then the meme has a greater chance of spreading. The erstwhile receivers will want to become themselves tellers of the same meme (or of an evolved/mutated version). Thus élite knowledge can provide a promotion to élite status.

Memes, like genes, do not purposely do or want anything — they either get replicated or not. Some meme systems have negative effects on the host or on their host society, but humans generally have a symbiotic relationship with these abstract entities.

Memes don't mutate in an exclusively passive way. The brain inhabited by a meme system can carry out a sort of active modification of a meme. One could draw an analogy with a cell's error-correction systems, but they clearly function quite differently. In essence, people create and modify memes almost continuously. One can modify, manipulate, and create meme systems in thought, for instance through internal dialogue. As soon as one opens one's mouth and says something (or does something) that one has not copied (but that others can copy), one has unleashed a novel meme. Thus, one could conclude that we all perform the role of a memetic engineer to some degree (even if not consciously).

This seems especially evident in modern society, more notably in the scientific and philosophical realms and in the entertainment industry. It has become standard practice for scientists and philosophers alike to assemble memetic systems and to question their philosophical and empirical integrity. On perceiving a flaw, one may seek theoretical (mathematical/thought experiments/logic/analysis) or empirical (experimental/observational) resolution. This happens in large part due to the influence of some of the more "modern" philosophers of the past. Over the last few hundred (or thousand) years, a "philosophy" or paradigm has evolved and developed which benefits the societies in which many embrace it. That philosophy includes the ethical, moral, and scientific obligation to take nothing for granted and always to question any new information one perceives. People following this tradition have transformed the memetic base of modern science and philosophy. These people include (just to name a scant few) Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Benjamin Franklin and Karl Popper. Science accepts nothing as true unless empirical evidence and observation suggests such “truth” strongly and consistently. This entire procedure adheres to a meme system that has evolved to the point of rejecting almost any absolute truth. This meme system now includes such novel analytical paradigms as the scientific method and Dewey's Decision-Making model (among many other meme-based systems) to help distinguish useful (or truthful) meme systems from "bad" ones.

Francis Heylighen of the Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies has postulated what he calls "memetic selection criteria". These criteria opened the way to a specialized field of applied memetics to find out if these selection criteria could stand the test of quantitative analyses. In 2003 Klaas Chielens carried out these tests in a Masters thesis project on the testability of the selection criteria.

Cultural materialism holds that the evolutionary pressures of economy and ecology explain many aspects of human culture. For example, the food taboos sometimes enshrined in religions - like the concepts of sacred cows, kosher and halal - would have prospered because they allowed the believing population to (say) live more hygienically and thus survive longer than non-believers in environments possibly more hostile to survival. A migration or a change of the economic infrastructure could render the taboo neutral or even adverse.

Meme resistance

Karl Popper advocated memetic caution in the strongest possible terms: "The survival value of intelligence is that it allows us to extinct a bad idea, before the idea extincts us."[How to reference and link to summary or text]

Resistance to violent and destructive courses of action has formed a common meme that can guide human cultural and cognitive evolution away from disastrous paths — for instance the U.S. and USSR stockpiled but did not use nuclear weapons in the Cold War period. Some cultures can consider ignorance a virtue — in particular, ignorance of certain temptations that the culture believes would prove disastrous if pursued by many individuals.

The Internet, perhaps the ultimate meme-vector, seems to host both sides of this debate. Opposition to use of the Internet can stem from any number of memes: from ethics to intent to ability to resist hacking or pornography.

The Principia Cybernetica project maintains a lexicon of memetics concepts, comprising a list of different types of memes. It also refers to an essay by Jaron Lanier, The ideology of cybernetic totalist intellectuals, which very strongly criticises "meme totalists" who assert memes over bodies.

Memetic virus exchange?

One controversial application of this "selfish meme" parallel (compare the selfish gene) results in the idea that certain collections of memes can act as "memetic viruses": collections of ideas that behave as independent life-forms which continue to get passed on — even at the expense of their hosts — simply because of their success at getting passed on. Some observers have suggested that evangelical religions and cults behave this way; so by including the act of passing on their beliefs as a moral virtue, other beliefs of the religion also get passed along even if they do not provide particular benefits to the believer.

Others maintain that the wide prevalence of human adoption of religious ideas provides evidence to suggest that such ideas offer some ecological, sexual, ethical or moral value; otherwise memetic evolution would long ago have selected against such ideas. For example, some religions urge peace and co-operation among their followers ("Thou shalt not kill") which may possibly tend to promote the biological survival of the social groups that carry these memes. However, the idea of group selection stands on shaky ground (to say the least) in the field of genetics. Accordingly, some consider the idea of selection of ideas beneficial to the group exclusively as unlikely.

Dawkins notes that one can distinguish a biological virus from its host's normal genetic material by the fact that it can propagate alone, without the entire genetic corpus of the host being propagated — or half of it, in the case of diploid sexual reproduction; thus, a virus can "sabotage" the host's other genes. This applies to memes in the sense that a meme that requires the success of its hosts has a greater likelihood of favouring the interests of these hosts than does a meme capable of succeeding even if each host quickly dies. For example, the commonplace meme encouraging people to wash their hands after they use the toilet or before handling food, and to remind others to do the same, is not at all harmful. In contrast, a cultish meme telling people to quit their jobs, abandon their families, and run around spreading the meme seems quite virulent.

Reproductive isolation in meme "speciation"

In traditional population genetics the normal genetic variation, genetic selection, and genetic drift do not lead to the formation of a new species without some form of "reproductive isolation"; i.e., in order to split a single species into two species, the two subpopulations of the original species must ultimately lose their ability to interbreed, which would normally maintain their heterogeneity. However, once separated, natural selection and/or just genetic drift acting on the normal genetic variation in the two subspecies will eventually change enough characteristics of the two subgroups that they can no longer interbreed, which by definition means that they will comprise two different species. Examples of reproductive isolation include geographical isolation, where a suddenly-appearing mountain range or river separates two subgroups; temporal isolation (isolation by time), where one subgroup becomes entirely diurnal in its habits while the other becomes entirely nocturnal; or even just 'behavioral' isolation, as seen in wolves and domestic dogs: they could interbreed, biologically speaking, but normally they do not.

A similar phenomenon can occur with memes. Normally, the population of individuals having a meme in their consciousness contains sufficient internal variation and mixes enough to keep a given meme relatively intact (although it covers a wide range of variations). Should that population become split, however, without sufficient contact for the two different subgroups of variations of the meme to equilibrate, eventually each group will evolve its own version of that meme, each version differing sufficiently from that of the other group to appear as a distinct entity.

The Kellerman meme provides an example of this occurring on the Internet. A search of the web and/or Usenet for the word 'Kellerman' will turn up many citations, describing at great length the behavior of a 'Dr. Arthur Kellerman', who, with the willing assistance of the Centers for Disease Control and the public health lobby, purportedly fabricated studies in order to implicate firearms (and by extension their owners) as a menace to public safety, for the purposes of statist control of the population. The authors of these pages and postings describe purported machinations, "junk science," a subsequent recantation by Dr. 'Kellerman', and the use of his work by gun control proponents.

In reality, no "Dr. Arthur Kellerman" exists, at least not in any connection with the above description. There is, however, a Dr. Arthur Kellermann (with double n), who has indeed published several papers estimating the overall impact on the public health of firearm availability and various aspects of firearm storage, as part of a career in public health and emergency and trauma medicine. As in any such series of studies, Kellermann's work has strengths and weaknesses, which Pundits rigorously debate both in the literature and online. However, even after eliminating matters of opinion and statements which are not fully supported, the remaining verifiable facts of Kellermann's studies and career remain virtually unrecognizable in the negative descriptions of 'Kellerman.'

The original meme of Kellermann and his work on gun-related violent injury has generated a new meme ("Dr. Kellerman is an evil lying gun-grabbing enemy of freedom") by the classic genetic phenomenon of a deletion mutation. The sub-population involved had strongly negative attitudes towards Kellermann's work as well as a lack of first-hand familiarity with his studies and career. Because of the "reproductive isolation" caused by the total non-intersection of the results of searches for "Kellerman" and "Kellermann," the 'Kellerman' meme drifted even further in the direction of negativity, unchecked by facts related to the real Kellermann. As this group encounters new individuals of similar general outlook, they introduce new recruits to the 'Kellerman' lore only, and go on to produce their own websites and postings furthering the rapid progress of this meme.

(This phenomenon also demonstrates two other features of memes — the "meme-complex" (memeplex) as a set of mutually-assisting "co-memes" which have co-evolved a symbiotic relationship, and the "Villain vs. Victim" infection strategy.)


Explaining, or re-naming?

One important criticism of meme theory hinges on the following question:

"If memes are the solution, what is the problem?"

Critics in this vein point to a dearth of useful applications of meme theory in its two decades of existence. Beyond highly general explanations of highly complex phenomena (especially religion), meme theory has yet to produce, according to critics, a solid case-study of a concrete phenomenon that has gained acceptance among either scientists or social scientists. Rather, they contend, all memetic studies have done is translate conventional social thinking into "meme language" — without adding new explanatory value.

This criticism continues by asserting that no reason exists for differentiating or discerning the word "meme" from the word "idea" or from the phrase "pattern of thought".

In response to these criticisms, a memeticist might characterize the intitial question as misleading (the word "explanation" or "descriptor" might seem more apt than "solution"). The creation of the term "meme" — as opposed to "idea" or "pattern of thought" — allows for specific description and application of the meme as a phenomenon.

Alleged lack of rigor

Evolutionary biology has advanced in recent years in large part because scientists have distinguished rigorously between phenotype and genotype — between physical appearance and its biochemical basis. For example, dwarfism may come about through any one of several genetic mechanisms. An animal population undergoing selection for smaller size might develop a predominance of any one of these genetic traits, or several in parallel, or a bundle of them. Identifying the particular genetic mechanism makes the rigorous and precise science of population genetics possible.

Memetics, by contrast, has no such model for the storage and transmission of memes. Memeticists typically assume that memetic "phenotypes" equate with memtic "genotypes" — that every individual believing in one god, for example, carries the same "monotheism meme". This assumption seems like a serious — and to critics, fatal — weakness in memetics relative to its genetic model.

In response to these criticisms, memeticists might argue that as their discipline does not construe memes as atomic entities, they therefore parallel indirectly the entirety of existing evolutionary taxonomy. (For example, one would not preclude fish from the animal kingdom for their lack of lungs.)

The problem of virus-analogies

Some critics attack proponents of memetics for their severely flawed conceptions of one aspect of memetic theory: the intermittently applied analogy with viruses. Neither biological nor computational viruses (according to this line of thought) can serve for analogous purposes because they differ radically from thoughts; thus meme-proponents commit the fallacy of false analogy. Once a biological virus has entered a cell, or once a processor has executed a computational virus, the outcome becomes strictly determined: an observer can identify that outcome by examining the order of amino-acids in the cell genome or the bit pattern in the computer memory, including mutations. All possible configurations of such viruses are well-defined and stored in digital form. — In contrast the brain consists of a massively parallel-executing mesh of neurons: we still do not know exactly how it stores and retrieves information. The senses provide continous, noisy and highly different input (note deafness, blindness, and perception disorders). Observations of witnesses suggest that similar experiences of different people may result in highly varied interpretations. Misunderstandings occur. Some concepts appear so abstract or need so much mental capacity that the majority of people cannot understand or "grasp" them. This situation suggests the questions: How can proponents of memes know that a "transfer" of a meme actually occurs in the sense that it remains the same entity? If meme-proponents explain the result of such a transfer as a "new meme" or as an "imperfect copy", what core of the transmitted meme remains unchanged? If nothing remains unchanged, the claim of a transfer seems highly dubious. If we regard the transferred (but changed) entity as the same entity, how can one identify the transferred part?

Similar criticisms of lack of precision and rigor could characterise much of the work of social science and studies of culture.

Accusations of pseudo-science

Furthermore, the lack of independent identification opens a plethora of ad-hoc excuses. A claimed meme stops propagating in a certain culture? — "Meme resistance". A claimed meme changes its appearance radically? — "Meme mutation". A claimed meme disappears? — "Natural selection". There exists no imaginable event (critics say) which memetics cannot explain; memetics therefore has pseudoscientific traits.

However, physicists' search for a Grand Unifying Theory with the ability to reconcile and contain all physical phenomenon, would not necessarily relegate the field to the pseudoscientific. Ultimately, the field of memetics will prove its value in cross- and multi-disciplinary applications, not in its direct resemblance to genetics or any other field.

Alleged Lack of Philosophical Rigour

The highly complex nature of ideas such as religion, politics, war, justice, science itself, cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional series of memes. The highly interconnected, multi-layering of ideas refuses such a simplification to an atomic or molecular form; as does the fact that each of our lives is fully enmeshed and involved in such "memes." Unlike genes we cannot view them through a microscope, rather we battle and rage with them every day.

This central problem with the possibility of memes is illustrated in the inability of such a proposal to explain how mimetics itself is a meme, or, further, how biological genetics could be descibed as a rather successful meme current in 20th century science. If such an explanation were offered, it would remove the ground from which the idea of memes arose.

See Quine's argument against such an atomic form of reduction in his classic essay, Two Dogmas of Empiricism.

Another philosophical criticism is that it reintroduces, or reinforces, a Cartesian dualism of mind Vs body, into a science of evolution, in the form of meme/gene. Such dualism is arguable but has been widely criticism by many prominent philosophers. Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations convincing showed the absurdity of positing two parallel worlds, one of "body stuff", the other of "mind stuff".

However, in response to such criticism one might add that mimeticists are also beginning to see memes as not atomic but as complex interactors in an environment of other memes and other ideas. Something prefigured perhaps in the nineteenth century theory of the Association of Ideas.

One the charge of dualism, mimeticists might counter that memes in fact supersede genetics, science itself is then just another meme.

Historical antecedents of the meme concept

Plato used the term eidos to speak of the immutable and eternal nature of an existing thing. The human mind acted upon this eidos, according to Plato, when reasoning about the world around it. Aristotle rejected this notion in favor of an abstraction and categorization of the world as perceived by the observer.

Descriptions of meme-like concepts appear in Sufi teaching. Muwakkals rank as separate beings, elementals, that make up human thought (compare Leibniz's monads).

During the Enlightenment the terms "idea", "perception", and "impression" came into use. The essential meaning of the term "idea", as then used, involved some existent phenomena resulting from perception of a stimulus and cogitation on that stimulus.

Charles Darwin struggled with the concept in his early notebooks (M and N Notebooks) and never succeeded in adequately addressing the complexities of the human social and cognitive capabilities. While Darwin lacked proof for a biologically-inheritable element, he had postulated one and seemed quite comfortable with the concept of biologically-inherited social traits. (A modern biologist might characterize the latter concept as "Social Darwinism".)

Gabriel Tarde (1843 - 1904), a French sociologist, developed ideas of cultural transmission based on imitation and innovation of small psychological interactions. His sociology attempted to classify social phenomena by the generation and propagation of ideas, practices, and habits. Some have seen this work as an appealing historical and theoretical precursor to memetics.

John Laurent in The Journal of Memetics has suggested that the term 'meme' itself may have derived from the work of the little-known German biologist Richard Semon. In 1904 Semon published Die Mneme (published in English as The Mneme in 1924). His book discussed the cultural transmission of experiences with insights parallel to those of Dawkins. Laurent found the use of the term mneme in The Soul of the White Ant (1927) by Maurice Maeterlinck (who allegedly plagiarised from Eugène N. Marais) and highlights its parallels to Dawkins's concept.

Maeterlinck, in discussing theories which attempt to explain 'memory' in termites as well as amongst the other social insects (ants, bees etc.), uses the phrase "engrammata upon the individual mneme" (Maeterlinck, 1927, p.198). Webster's Collegiate dictionary defines an engram as "a memory trace; specif.: a protoplasmic change in neural tissue hypothesized to account for persistence of memory". Note that Maeterlinck explains that he obtained his phrase from the "German philosopher" Richard Semon. [1]

Laurent suggests that the etymological roots of the term 'meme' may come from mimneskesthai, the Greek verb for 'to remember, to keep in mind' — rather than from the Dawkins-supplied root of Greek mimeisthai, "to imitate."

The old saying "Ideas have a life of their own" clearly encapsulates the "meme about memes". Keith Henson has traced this quote back to 1910 where an unknown interviewer of G. K. Chesterton used it - apparently as an old saying at that time.[2]

One could conceivably trace this idea back to at least 1831, when Victor Hugo wrote: "...every thought, either philosophical or religious, is interested in perpetuating itself..." in his book Notre Dame de Paris (translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) (Book Fifth, Chapter II).

Everett Rogers pioneered the "Diffusion of innovations" theory (formalised in 1962) which explains how and why people adopt new ideas. Rogers reflected some of the influence of Gabriel Tarde (1843 - 1904), who set out "laws of imitation" in his book of 1890 that explained how people decided whether to imitate behavior.

The concept that ideas spread according to genetic rules predates the coining by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene; for example William S. Burroughs asserted that "language is a virus."

Cultural materialism holds that the evolutionary pressures of economy and ecology explain many aspects of human culture. For example, the food taboos sometimes enshrined in religions - like the concepts of sacred cows, kosher and halal - would have prospered because they allowed the believing population to (say) live more hygienically and thus survive longer than non-believers in environments possibly more hostile to survival. A migration or a change of the economic infrastructure could render the taboo neutral or even adverse.

Examples of memes

Crudely-stated versions of some common memes include:

  • Technology: cars, paper-clips, etc. Technology clearly demonstrates mutation as well, which memetic (or genetic) progress requires. Many paper-clip designs have emerged throughout history, for example, with varying degrees of longevity, fecundity and copying fidelity (i.e., memetic "success"). An often-cited example of "technology as meme" involves the building of a fire.
  • Jingles: advertising slogans set to an engaging melody
  • Earworms: songs that one can't stop humming or thinking.
  • Jokes (or at least those jokes popularly considered funny).
  • Proverbs and aphorisms: for example: "You can't keep a good man down".
  • Nursery rhymes: propagated from parent to child over many generations, sometimes with associated actions and movements.
  • Children's culture: games, activities and taunts typical for different age groups.
  • Epic poems: once important memes for preserving oral history; writing has largely superseded their oral transmission.
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Fashions
  • Medical and safety advice: "Don't swim for an hour after eating" or "Steer in the direction of a skid".
  • Movies: very memetic given their mass replication — people tend to replicate scenes or repeat popular catch phrases such as "You can't handle the truth!" from A Few Good Men or "Alllllllrighty then!" from Ace Ventura, even if they have not seen the movie themselves.
  • Religions: complex memes, including folk religious beliefs, such as The Prayer of Jabez.
  • Popular concepts: these include Freedom, Justice, Ownership, Open Source, Egoism, or Altruism
  • Viral marketing: A type of marketing based on memes and using word of mouth to advertise.
  • Group-based biases: everything from anti-semitism and racism to cargo cults.
  • Longstanding political memes such as "mob rule", national identity, Yes, Minister and "republic, not a democracy".
  • Programming paradigms: from structured programming and object-oriented programming to extreme programming.
  • Internet phenomena: Internet slang
  • Moore's Law: this meme has a particularly interesting form of self-replication. The conviction that "semiconductor complexity doubles every 18 months" became considerably more than a predictive observation; it became a performance-target for an entire industry once that industry extensively started to believe in the "law". Manufacturers now strive to make the next generation of semiconductor technology re-create the growth in performance of the previous generation, and so maintain belief in Moore's Law. Additionally, the evolution of this meme provides details of interest. The original law described growth in terms of the number of transistors on a chip, but people - more and more -- have (wrongly) understood it as describing an increase in terms of performance. This could exemplify how a meme can mutate slowly under the pressure of its environment (partial technical understanding and simplification for use in the mainstream media).
  • Consciousness and the self: Susan Blackmore theorized that a "self" merely comprises a collection of memetic stories which she calls the selfplex.
  • Metameme The concept of memes itself comprises a meme. Even the idea that the concept of memes as a meme has become a widely-spread meme. However, the idea that the concept of memes as a meme has not yet become particularly common as a meme.
  • Anecdote: short joke/story

The Memetic Lexicon lists meme-attributes compiled by Glenn Grant under a "share-alike" licence. The examples it offers may help to focus the concept. The Lexicon has circulated since the early 1990s, and evolved into its version 3.5 of its memplex (Memelex) in 2004: A Memetic Lexicon. One should keep in mind that Glenn Grant has the background of a writer of fiction rather that of an authority on memetics: many of the terms in the lexicon he simply invented as an experiment in the spread of his own self-generated memes. [3]

See also


  1. Henson, H.Keith: Memes Meta-Memes and Politics , 1988 [4]
  2. H. Keith Henson and Arel Lucas: Memes, Evolution, and Creationism, 1989, [5]
  3. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press, 1976, 2nd edition, December 1989, hardcover, 352 pages, ISBN 0192177737; April 1992, ISBN 019857519X; trade paperback, September 1990, 352 pages, ISBN 0192860925
  4. The Music of Life, Pir Hazrat Inayat Khan, Omega Uniform Edition, 2nd edition, 1993, trade paperback: 353 pages, ISBN 093087238X. An introduction to the muwakkals, the Eastern memes.
  5. Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, 1991
  6. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by Daniel Dennett, 1995
  7. Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by Richard Brodie, Integral Pr, September 1995, 251 Pages, ISBN 09636001
  8. The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History by Howard Bloom, Atlantic Monthly Press, February 1997, 480 pages, ISBN 0871136643
  9. The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore, Oxford University Press, 1999, hardcover ISBN 0198503652, trade paperback ISBN 0965881784, May 2000, ISBN 019286212X
  10. Cultural Selection by Agner Fog. Dordrecht: Kluwer 1999. ISBN 0-7923-5579-2.
  11. Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society by Aaron Lynch, Basic Books, 1999, ISBN 0465084672
    1. Review: The new pseudo-science of memes
  12. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, Bantam Doubleday Dell, reprint, 2000, trade paperback: 440 pages, ISBN 0553380958 (science fiction novel about a metavirus engineered to activate as a meme in the brain, spreading through a number of vectors such as actual physical viruses, images, and others)
  13. "Eyes at the back of your head: How Richard Semon's memes gave way to Richard Dawkins's memes" by Tim Flannery, Times Literary Supplement, October 19, 2001
  14. The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think by Robert Aunger, Free Press, 2002, hardcover ISBN 0743201507
  15. Henson, H. Keith: "Sex, Drugs, and Cults. An evolutionary psychology perspective on why and how cult memes get a drug-like hold on people, and what might be done to mitigate the effects", The Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 343-355 [6]
  16. The Ideology of Cybernetic Totalist Intellectuals, an essay by Jaron Lanier which very strongly criticises "meme totalists" who assert memes over bodies.
  17. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
  18. Principia Cybernetica holds a lexicon of memetics concepts, comprising a list of different types of memes.
  19. A list of memetics publications on the web
  20. The Masculist Meme by Alan Carr. Lulu Publishing, Content .58184 Examines political correctness as a mind-virus.
  21. Memeiosis by Steven Ericsson-Zenith, a formal characterization of memes.
  22. Culture as Complex Adaptive System by Hokky Situngkir, formal interplays between memetics and cultural analysis.
  23. The Viral Aspects of Language: A Quantitative Research of Memetic Selection Criteria by Klaas Chielens
  24. The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment by Kate Distin, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN 0521606276
  25. Notre Dame de Paris (translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) by Victor Hugo, 1831
  26. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett, 2006

External links

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